Library Closings & Little Free Libraries

An article at the BBC website reported last year that 343 public libraries have closed in the UK.  That is a disturbing statistic.  Will our libraries follow?

Perhaps I’m too pessimistic: the library closures in the U.S. have not been on that scale.  The  ALA (American Library Association) reported in 2016 that the number of closures of American libraries had dropped.  Five states closed library branches in 2016, as opposed to 10 states in 2015.

A Little Free Library.

You know who’s pessimistic?  Canadian librarians. They are fuming not about a lack of government funding, but about the populist Little Free Library movement.  They reason that  if Little Free Libraries, those cute bookshelves-on-sticks planted in people’s front yards, pop up in every upper-middle-class neighborhood, public libraries will lose their clientele.

I have to laugh:  if the Little Free Library is their competition, librarians need to upgrade their collections.  But some  Canadian librarians have anxiously studied the LFL trend in Toronto and Calgary and published  results in The Journal of Radical Librarianship.  You can read a mocking American editorial of the panic at Library Journal.  And the LFL movement seems to me to be a good thing for librarians to back:  there is a Little Free Library inside the Iowa City Public Library.

There are 60,000 registered Little Free Libraries internationally, and at least 15  on my urban walks.  Today I went on a Little Free Library hike, carrying a bag of discarded books.  I planned to visit six, but, Lord, it was almost the Equinox,  and the sun went down just as I left books in the fifth. On another day I’ll visit the sixth.

Here’s what I saw:

FIRST STOP, in a residential neighborhood.  I left a copy of Trollope’s The Prime Minister, the last in the Palliser series  This well-curated LFL  has a mix of literary fiction and best-sellers: it is as good as it gets with LFLs.  Today the shelf has Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, Elizabeth McCracken’s Niagara Falls All Over Again, a yoga book, a Maeve Binchy book, mysteries, and more.

SECOND STOP, outside of Snookies Malt Shop.  Snookies  is open just five months a year, so there has been no traffic  in months.  The majority of the books are romances and Y.A. books, among them the despicable Fifty Shades series. I left a copy of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover as a joke, hoping someone will mistake it for a romance.

THIRD STOP, in a residential neighborhood.  As you can see, there is almost nothing there.   I dropped off Hans Christian Andersen’s adult novella, The Ice Virgin. which, alas! was not for me.  Surely someone else will like to continue his or her reading of Hans Christian Andersen.

FOURTH STOP, in a residential neighborhood. This LFL is very visible, strung with Christmas lights and in a high-traffic area.  People take books but tend not to leave them.   And so  I donated two books, Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, a nonfiction novel about the March on the Pentagon in 1967, and Jon Hassler’s novel, Dear James

FIFTH STOP, in a residential neighborhood.  This is one of the loveliest of the LFLs, because the family keeps it neat and well-stocked.  The choices in general would not be mine: Robert Ludlum, Mary Daheim, and a business book called Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t.  But they also have a Jane Austen and a Dickens, so I left Trollope’s Barchester Towers.

What are your Little Free Libraries like?  Are they better stocked than the rather scatty collections in Iowa City, Des Moines, Adel, and Winona, Minnesota?  Do let me know.

Can This Little Free Library Be Saved?

imageCan this Little Free Library be saved?

It’s so-o-o-o cute. Why does it need saving?

Because the book selection is  awful!

imageI love pop culture. I read mysteries and watch sitcoms.   But why go to the trouble of putting a Little Free Library bookcase-on-a-stick in your front yard if the best you can offer is Carl Hiassen, Jonathan Kellerman, or V. C. Andrews?

So this is what people read, we say as we inspect the LFLs we so admired when they started.

The populist LFL trend began in 2009 in Hudson, Wisconsin.  Todd Bol built a small bookcase in the shape of a one-room schoolhouse and stuck it in his yard with a sign saying “Free Book Exchange.” People loved it and built their own and there are, according to the LFL website, as of January 2016,  36,000 Little Free Libraries registered in the U.S. and in 40 other countries.


A very nice LFL!

But is it really a movement?  No, it’s one of those things people put in their yard and forget about. But why not use it to raise the level of reading?  Book clubs,  literacy organizations, and political discussion groups could sponsor LFLs.  Liberal hipsters formed co-ops and groups in the ’60s and ’70s to discuss and promote collective knowledge: our non-physical LFLs contained Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest books, Thoreau’s Walden, The Diaries of Anais Nin, Our Bodies, Ourselves, The Population Bomb, Brecht,  Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sexual Politics, books on Dadaism, and Dune.   Today, everybody has a voice and a Facebook page (she says, while blogging), but the internet absurdly has promoted the concept that all literature is equal.  When Jackie Collins died, our library had a display of her books.  The Library of Congress classifies Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant as fantasy and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries as a mystery.  (That’s where you’ll find them at our public library.)  The few remaining newspaper book pages pander to the masses with interviews with Danielle Steel and reviews of rock memoirs. And by the way, rock memoirs are ghosted, are they not, so why review them? The few I’ve skimmed set the bar for bad writing.

In a stunning article in The Millions, “The Open Refrigerator,” Gerald Howard, an editor at Doubleday, discusses the changes in the now corporate culture of publishing.  He writes about the history of the publication and decline of sales of Thomas Mann’s books in the U.S.

Sadly, The Magic Mountain, once a fixture of every middlebrow household’s bookshelf, has fallen off sharply in its sales and cultural currency, as has the rest of Mann’s oeuvre.  He and it are too forbidding, demanding, and German for contemporary tastes.

It’s true.  Foreign language departments are closing, the LFLS display bad books, God knows what Book Page editors are up to these days…

If I’m sounding like Carrie Matheson in Homeland, it’s because I just watched Season 4 on DVD!

To be honest, the LFLs do not do a brisk job in moving books, so why do I care?

Theft at the Little Free Libraries

B. S. Johnson omnibus 414QPWDQFFLToday we saw a copy of the B. S. Johnson Omnibus at a used bookstore.

Good news, you say.

It would be, except it was my copy.

Little Free Library

Little Free Library

This summer I donated it to a Little Free Library, one of the free book boxes that have popped up in front yards and on trails. There are about 25,000 in the U.S. and 40 other countries.  The signs say, “Take a book. Leave a book.”

When I revisited the LFL, I was pleased that someone had taken the Johnson, since I doubted that anyone knew his experimental writing.   (I blogged about his very weird novel, House Mother Normal, here).

This particular Little Free Library is on a trail.  Depressing to think that somebody is stealing the books and selling them.  Well, readers must get some of the books.

There have been thefts at Little Free Libraries in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Pioneer Girl book5After the thefts in Lincoln, the University of Nebraska Press donated multiple copies of some of their books to the Little Free Libraries.  They  include “Pioneer Girl” by Andrea Warren, “Beaver Steals Fire” by Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and “Grandpa’s Third Drawer — Unlocking Holocaust Memories” by Judy Tal Kopelman.

According to the Omaha World-Herald,

It was incredibly lucky timing,” said Rosemary Vestal, publicity manager for University of Nebraska Press. “This did not come from the libraries being emptied out. This was in the works before that. But it was really lucky that we could help out in this way.”

It is discouraging that thieves would steal from Little Free Libraries.  The books are free:  someone took them.   I guess you have to keep trying, knowing that sometimes books will get into the right hands.  But I probably won’t donate to the trail location anymore.

Little Free Libraries & Bookstores in Bloomsbury

A Really Lovely Little Free Library

A  lovely Little Free Library

People cannot get enough of Little Free Libraries.

The movement started in 2009 in Wisconsin when Todd Bol built a bookcase shaped like a a one-room schoolhouse. Today, there are 25,000 Little Free Libraries. You can buy kits at

At least five new LFLs have been built here in the last month.  The stylish LFL pictured above represents a big commitment.   The owners have  built a brick patio on the edge of the sidewalk and installed a bench painted with phrases like “fairy tale” and “short story.” The basic birdhouse-on-a-stick-style LFL is well-stocked:  recent titles ranging from Women in Love to Ordinary People to Memoirs of a Geisha to The Old Curiosity Shop.  There is a big turnover.

The bench has phrases like

The bench has phrases like “fairy tale” and “short story” painted on it.

Very attractive, isn’t it?  I’d love a Little Free Library, but there are already five in my neighborhood.

A well-stocked library.

A well-stocked library.

Not all are in quite such good shape, though.  On the trail, there is a Little Free Library shaped like a general store.  But it needs donations.

Little Free Library on the  trail

Little Free Library on the trail

The good thing:  most of the books have been taken.  The bad thing:  no one replaces them.

Here is the shelf today.

This one needs to be stocked!

This one needs to be stocked!

Good God!  It needs to be stocked,

Do you want to shop for books in Bloomsbury (London)?  I do.   In the “NB” column  in the July 3 issue of the TLS,  the writer J.C. entertains us with news of new author plaques and bookstores “hidden away”  in Bloomsbury.

J.C. writes :

Across the street from Empson’s old place is Judd Books, specializing in bargain academic, but with remaindered poetry and fiction in dubious abundance. In adjacent Leigh Street resides Collinge & Clarke, with a hint of the Old Curiosity Shop, a place for seekers after private presses, periodicals and rear first editions.

And then he writes about Skoob.  (I have been there.)

Here are the overflowing shelves, the arcane subject headings, the musty smell, the foreign languages on the floor, the grumpy staff—so much a feature of Skoob that we’d take offense at a warm welcome—the piano we’ve never heard played.

Booksellers are often so grumpy!  In Jonathan Lethem’s hilarious story, “The King of Sentences,” two pretentious bookstore clerks (who snub their customers, as bookstore clerks do everywhere) try to write perfect sentences and stalk a reclusive writer they call the King of Sentences.  (The story is in Lethem’s new book, Lucky Alan and Other Stories.)

J.C.’s excellent column in the TLS is unfortunately not available free online, but you can buy a copy or read it at your local library.  And here is a link to the TLS website.